Martin Bell is the former BBC war correspondent and was the independent MP for Tatton between 1997 and 2001. He met Alex Smith (AS) and Anthony Painter (AP) on Monday, 6th July, 2009 at his home in London.
As we begin the interview, we are already talking about expenses and the last 12 years of Labour government…
MB: I think it went wrong early on, from which point your party’s original pledge to clean up politics was completely ignored. If I have a centre-left government in power, I expect to see something Obama-like. I expect to see a crusade. But on an individual level there were so many repeat offenders in terms of ministerial misconduct – Prescott, Mandelson, Blunkett. Mandelson, for example, was questioned about his mortgage application for the posh place in Notting Hill when he already had a mortgage on a property in Hartlepool. When he was asked whether he’d declared it, he said that he didn’t know that a mortgage was a loan! And this guy’s the Business Secretary?! So I found my time on the Committee for Standards in Public Life one of the most dismaying experiences of my life – war zones included – because the influence of the whips was constantly seeping through the door.
AS: When you went into parliament in 1997 were you aware of the degree of expenses abuse?
MB: No, I wasn’t. When I went into parliament I was completely overawed. I thought what a great opportunity, what a wonderful place. You can imagine being an independent trying to find your feet among the honourable members and right honourable members and honourable learned members. So I don’t think I really clocked that everything was not quite right until after three or four months. I thought the average calibre of MPs would be much higher than it is. Of course there are some terrific people in there of all parties, but they’re not all what you’d call the Best of British. But even then I had no idea about the depth of the expenses scandal. It never occurred to me that I could claim for my bathplug or my light or even my food. I could’ve made another £50,000 easily if I’d wanted to.
AS: Do you think that because you were an independent on an anti-sleaze platform you escaped the elders who were approaching new members on their first days to “educate” them on how to maximise expenses?
MB: That’s absolutely true. When I joined the BBC in 1962-3, the old hands would take you aside and say, “this is how you claim expenses”. And of course most MPs have mentors when they join the House, from their own parties. But I’ve been thinking about this. In my last summer as an MP I bought a £15 hanging basket from a local village fete – it never occurred to me until I’d seen that Margaret Beckett had charged £800 for hanging baskets that I could do that, but that’s because I don’t understand the thought process of how people felt they could get away with it.
AP: I think it’s well established that there was individual misconduct and there was clearly an issue with the system as well. What changed with the Telegraph’s coverage was the degree of scrutiny, after which the public had a ferocious interest in what was going on. Do you think there’s a broader issue in terms of a lack of accountability in politics?
MB: Yes, and I think that connects with the sense that our government is not functioning well. There was the Iraq war, the lack of regulation of the financial sector and then we had what I call Black Thursday: the day on which the redacted comments came out. Then we saw the limits of what we would have seen had the Telegraph never got hold of the originals – and we realised we’d have known very, very little of the truth. So it’s like Watergate: it’s not only the crime that’s wrong, it’s the cover up. The redactions were released 5 or 6 weeks after the truth and gave the thing an extra charge. But it’s not going to go away. I think we’re going to lose at least half the MPs. They’re falling like autumn leaves.
AP: Is that a good or a bad thing?
MB: It’s a good thing, it’s a good thing. I don’t know of any really good MPs who are stepping down except Ian Gibson, who’s been scapegoated big time. But I’m not sure that your party has responded to the outrage as well as it should have done.
AP: My experience of the outrage is that it’s very deep but that expenses are only the tip of the iceberg and that actually there’s been an accumulating frustration over a number of years and people don’t feel listened to either by local representatives or national representatives. Is that your experience too?
MB: Yes, that’s true. There was a classic case in Cheshire. Suddenly Hazel Blears came up with this plan to reorganise local government in Cheshire – a whole lot of old authorities went and two new county councils were formed in East and West Cheshire because it suited the political establishment. But Hazel Blears never consulted anybody except for the political establishment and Chester Zoo. People in Cheshire have written to me and asked me “who’s speaking for us, why haven’t they asked us?”
At this point, Martin excitedly scrambles around for his glasses and amongst the books on a large wooden bookshelf in the corner of the room….
MB: Have you read Gwyneth Dunwoody’s swansong speech from December 2007? I loved that woman to death! She once walked into the voting lobby behind me and said to me “you look like you know where you’re going, so I’ll go with you.”
Martin is now leafing through the pages of a book…
MB: I wrote this bloody book, I should know where the speech is! It was about the plan to change local government in Cheshire. It could have been a good plan, but it didn’t matter because people weren’t consulted on it. Oh, it’s the wrong book!
He plucks another book from the shelf and eventually shows us the part of the speech by Gwyneth Dunwoody, which reads:
“I have been in the House long enough to see the coming and going of many inadequate personalities. I have seen those on both sides of the House who have been promoted for various reasons. I have seen the crawlers. I have seen those who have used sex – there are so many it would take too long to name them…I have seen those who demonstrated a great commitment to their own interests, irrespective of the political parties they were supposed to represent. But I have rarely seen a decision such as this [the proposed local government reform] taken with such cynicism and so little respect for the interests of the average voter.”
MB: She was a great lady. We miss the Gwyneths.
AP: Recently I gave a talk in a village called Lowdham – which is a very Tory village in Nottinghamshire – and a few days later I gave a talk in Walsall. From the Conservative side to the Labour side, there was a unity of conviction that something had gone wrong with our politics and something fundamental had to change. That feeling was across the political spectrum.
MB: How did the audiences at the village in Nottinghamshire feel?
AP: I said to them, look, we’re probably not going to agree if we talk about policy, so let’s talk about politics and what’s going on. There was an enthusiastic response to my argument that politics has to fundamentally change. And in Walsall they had the same conviction. So it seems to me that there is scope now for more and more independents in Parliament.
MB: I give a similar lecture up and down the country and on cruise ships and everyone agrees and says “why aren’t we hearing this from anyone other than you?” And when I say that the decision to invade Iraq was the worst decision taken by any Prime Minister in my lifetime, the audience cheers! They all agree – especially the Tories and they voted for it! So it drives me crazy, but this is where sites like LabourList can come in. So long as you’re a voice of the people and of independent thought, rather than a voice of the party, you will do terribly well.
AS: That’s something I’ve been very conscious of since I took over as editor. But going back to Iraq, I wonder what you think of the idea I discussed with Sunder Katwala of the Fabians that 9/11 and the war in Iraq were the turning point for the Labour government…
MB: Oh, yes. Without 9/11 there would have been no war in Iraq and the government would have been able to get on with essential domestic reforms and business. But we had at the time a Prime Minister who rather enjoyed playing the world stage. I describe him in that book as a red carpet politician. And it’s very gratifying for a British Prime Minister to be invited to spend a weekend at Camp David and to be cajoled by the President, whoever that President is. So I can see how Iraq happened, but there’s no justification for it happening.
AP: I think that’s right: Iraq was the turning point for this government. But the notion that politics isn’t delivering goes back further, because ultimately the election of New Labour was a reaction to that same notion – that politics wasn’t delivering and that the political class had lost the confidence of the people. So going back to that broad desire for change across the piece, how do you tap into that?
MB: I’ve had a lot to say about the political class because we’ve never had a political class like this. On both sides there are people who have had no experience of the real world, and the bit of my speech that most people respond to is that for the first time in our history, we’ve had no one in power, no minister or junior minister, who’s ever served in the armed forces. Not one. Lord Carrington, who’s a really good guy and who was Defence Secretary to Ted Heath in the early ’70s, told me recently that every single member of Heath’s government had served in the Second World War in uniform, with the exception of the Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher. The guideline there is that she’d have made a great machine gunner. And John Major still had Carrington and for most of the time he had Willie Whitelaw. But Blair had nothing but his own inner voices. I’m fairly well connected with the military, with generals and retired generals, and their disaffection over the war in Iraq and the waste is very profound. You see that reflected in the various utterances of General Dannatt since he took over. There is a school of thought, of which I am one, that thinks that there should have been a resignation at Chief of Staff level in February or March of 2003. General Sir Michael Rose thinks the same thing. I did a documentary with him in which he said not only that there should have been a resignation, but he also called for the impeachment of Tony Blair. That’s fairly brave for the Colonel of the Coldstream Guards. But that disconnect between the politics, the politicians and the people is not just in your party: it goes across the parties.
AS: I agree that you should have military people around you in cabinet, especially for when these decisions have to be made, but government is a civilian job and I certainly don’t think a military background is a pre-requisite for leadership.
MB: But if you haven’t served yourself, you must take the advice of people who have. This is why Obama has kept Robert Gates. If I were David Cameron, I’d give Dannatt a peerage immediately.
AP: But the signs are that a Cameron government, should it come into power, would be as centralised and concentrated on 10 Downing Street as the Blair government was.
MB: It would, but this has been a trend ever since Margaret Thatcher, who never liked the Foreign Office. And it was extremely so under Blair. But I hope they’ve learned their lesson from Iraq.
AP: The Iraq war is not quite at an end, is it. We’ve got the inquiry now. What would you hope to see coming out of that inquiry?
MB: Well, I think it’s terrific that they’ve changed their mind about holding it in private – that would be like redacting MPs’ expenses. But the idea that you should follow the rules and paradigms of 25 years ago, that because the Falklands inquiry was held in private this should be too, is ridiculous. Now I accept that if you get someone like Michael Shipster, the MI6 agent who talked to Saddam Hussein’s Head of Intelligence, that his evidence can be given behind closed doors. But the rest of it can’t be. One of the things about the Hutton Inquiry is that the evidence went one way and the conclusions went the other way, so it looked like a stitch up. So I don’t think the inquiry will reinforce our private pet theories about the war, but so long as the evidence is in public, it will be important – even if we’ve had to wait too long for it.
AP: So we’ve got the diagnosis. Where do we go from here? What has to change about our politics?
MB: First of all, the Kelly committee recommendations must be accepted in full.
AS: And without condition?
MB: And without condition. If you’ve got time you should attend one of Kelly’s hearings – they’re really good and he’s a sharp guy. I interviewed him when it started and asked if he’d resign if Parliament didn’t accept his recommendations. He replied with a twinkle that he’d ponder that if it happened. But they are going to accept the recommendations, so that’s step one. I don’t think this is the time to tackle the big constitutional issues, because this crisis is beyond just fixed term parliaments or reform of the House of Lords. But I am in favour of open primaries because the key is to improve the quality of MPs. If we can do that, so much will follow. If we forget party hacks and envelope stuffers, it would be a different world. I also like the Alternative Vote because you now have a government that is elected on 22.5% of the total number of people qualified to vote – and we dare impose democracy by force of arms on other countries? I’m also in favour of what I call the “unclenched fist” – which means that the parties voluntarily change themselves. David Miliband made the John Smith speech about this and he’s right – the parties are just shells and husks of what they used to be. I can’t see any justification for the whips choosing the membership of select committees. I would like independent MPs, of whom I think there will be a good number after the next election, to have exactly the same rights as anybody else. And I think we’re entitled to a change in the culture and practices of the House. David Cameron initially said he was going to end Punch and Judy politics, but he turned out to be rather good at Punch and Judy politics. I think we need to have another go at that.
AS: How important is it for a party like ours to have that sort of re-energising that you’re talking about, and how difficult will that be for our party from a position of government?
MB: It may be that you’re going to have to have a period in opposition, which is no bad thing. You’ve been in 12 years now and opposition can do some good.
AS: Can a Tory government do some good?
MB: I’ll judge them when they come in. But I think it’s going to be the shortest Parliament ever, if only because the economic conditions are going to be so grave. But I’ve been saying this for years: you need to somehow change your culture. Whichever political party puts public trust way up the agenda is going to do well, because people are so angry. That means disciplining your own erring MPs when they do wrong. At the moment, your party is behind on this and the Liberal Democrats are struggling to catch up – although they have the advantage of only having a trouser press against them.
AP: Politics has come down to a trouser press, a duck house and a bathplug…
AS: The same place it started, probably…
MB: Tipp O’Neill said that all politics is level. But poor old Sir Peter Viggers: he battled mindfully to keep his naval hospital in Gosport, and he’ll only be remembered for his bloody duck houses!
AP: Well, a duck house is a bit ridiculous on or off expenses! You do seem to look back on your time in the House with fondness…do you miss it?
MB: I had a wonderful time in the constituency and I had a wonderful time in the House, until I got in the chamber. I would go into the chamber at random to see what people were saying, and I often thought, surely we can do better than this. I often asked myself how these people ever got elected, re-elected, even selected. I notice that neither party has yet really let go of a frontbencher. Even Andrew MacKay was no frontbencher – he was close to the leader, but he was really just a private office advisor. I’m very careful what I say about George Osborne because we’ve served the same constituency, and the only thing I’ve criticised him on publicly was his vote on the Iraq War. But when I was MP for Tatton, I had a little cottage in Great Budworth, which was obviously my second home. I could have charged £12,000 for it, but the rent was £7,000, so I charged £7,000. So it seems to me that George has got questions to answer about his mortgage.
AS: How can we harness a party or movement structure – which I think are both incredibly powerful – without succumbing to the baggage and the whip culture of the party machine?
MB: Well, I accept that and there is no shining city on a hill. But I think that for the good of your own party there needs to be a looser discipline among MPs so they can express themselves more freely without threat of de-selection. A party is a collective of like-minded individuals, so why should we have this draconian censorship and people afraid of losing their seats or their place in the cabinet?
AP: Had that been the case, the Iraq war might have been debated more fully in parliament.
MB: It’s enormously to the credit of Robin Cook that he insisted on debating Iraq, but it only got seven hours, while we spent 700 hours debating whether we should kill foxes. Actually those were some of the best debates: I used to invite my wife in and she was hugely entertained because they were free-vote debates and those are always the best.
AS: And you voted against the fox-hunting ban…?
MB: I managed to enrage everybody because I didn’t think it was that important an issue – and I still don’t and I resent the time wasted on it. But, yes, I voted against it because on issues where I was uncertain myself, I tried to gauge the feeling of my constituents and become a delegate.
AS: While we’re on voting, what do you feel you contributed to Parliament during your term and what do you feel it gave you in return?
MB: I felt it gave me a platform and I felt I could contribute something on what I called the “whiff of cordite” issues. I knew nothing about Parliamentary procedure when I came in – I’d had no intention of being an MP, it was just something that happened to me. But I was the only MP with any recent knowledge of the nature of modern warfare. So most of my interventions were either about honest politics and the form of the electoral practise or about the war in Kosovo and so on. I led the campaign for the House to agree to compensation for the 7,000 Japanese prisoners of war. Tony Blair, to his credit, agreed it in November 2000. Otherwise, you do what you have to do in your constituency; you fight for the Alderly Edge bypass and against the second runway. I did the same as any MP would in that way.
AS: When dealing with these issues, do you consider yourself broadly on the left or the right?
MB: I’m all over the place. I was challenged to do this on my first Question Time and people thought they’d know where I stand, but they didn’t really. I suppose I’m a kind of conservative radical. I really admire Cobbett, Chesterton, those really English people.
AS: So what do you think about Speaker Bercow?
MB: Well I thought he was one of the oddest MPs I ever met. I never met anyone who knew so much about the House of Commons on his first day. He knew more about the House of Commons on his first day than I did on my last. When he’d do his ten-minute bills, I’d sit back in astonishment. So I think Bercow is entitled to a fair shot, although it’s a bit alarming that for the second time in succession the Speaker was elected apparently by the block Labour vote, which seems to have been a tactical manoeuvre to put one over on David Cameron. It’s a tough job, but he doesn’t lack the self-confidence to do it.
AP: After you left in 2001, Richard Taylor came in Wyre Forest, who is enormously well respected. Do you regret not going for a second term?
MB: Yes I do, but I do not regret keeping the promise I made that I would serve one term only. That was a stupid thing to commit to, but I did that because I thought I was going to lose in 1997. Matthew Paris said I was going to be toast and that was quite reasonable because I was up against an experienced, clever, well-funded MP with very good lawyers, throwing bricks at me every day – what chance did I have? And theoretically, with the change of boundaries, I was fighting against a 22,000 vote majority. So in trying to move 12,000 Tories I offered them a one night stand rather than a lifetime of commitment. I didn’t realise that I never had to make that promise. So I regret the promise, but I don’t regret having kept it.
AS: Do you think you’d have won without the promise to serve only one term?
MB: I do think I’d have had a good chance, and George thinks so too. George’s view is that it would have been a messy election in 2001. He came to see me and his only anxiety was whether I was going to lose. It was a hugely difficult situation making that decision, but I’m glad I kept my promise. That said, I hugely regret not having been in the House on 18th March 2003, because I obviously would have voted against the war. When people come to me now with these Hazel Blears type situations and say, “why don’t you have a go?” I recommend the local hero option.
AP: Does that mean you’ve ruled out standing against her?
MB: No, I haven’t ruled it out. Let’s see who is standing in February and March.
AS: Would it have to be Salford?
MB: I certainly think somebody should stand against Hazel Blears. But I think it should be somebody local so I’m talking to some people in the northwest next week. In other cases, I think Terry Waite could do very well against David Ruffley in Bury St Edmunds. But I also think it’s important that independents do not split what I call the miscreant vote. I mean, what’s the point in standing against Jacqui Smith when she’s so definitely going to lose? This is why I’ve had certain conversations with dear Esther Rantzen. I’m not a great political strategist, but compared to Esther I’m Machiavelli. She goes charging up to Luton South and I have to tell her there’s no need. I told her, if anyone is certain to be deselected or to stand down it’s Margaret Moran. So she’s now left on her charging white horse without a windmill and I don’t know what she’s going to do.
AP: It sounds like you’ve become the voice, the leader, of the independents?
MB: Well, not voluntarily. But people do come to me because I’ve actually done it. I do point out the difficulties, which haven’t gone away just because of the new political landscape. You’ll still be up as an independent in the next election against the main political parties and their monopoly of coverage in the press and their broadcasts.
AS: But you have an evident nostalgia for parliament and politics. Were you like that 6 months ago or is that a result of the context of the expenses scandal?
MB: I think it’s the context of the expenses. Before that, my view was what’s past is past. It’s a brilliant thing to have had the opportunity to be an MP – however well or badly I did it. But, yes, the expenses have really got me going, I just can’t believe it. I get off the bus and people walking their dog ask me “what are you doing getting off the bus? You should be in Parliament!” So I’m not ruling it out, I’m just seeing what happens. But I do think there can be a people’s insurrection and I think it could happen in Salford if we can find the right candidate.
Martin’s book, referred to in the interview, is The Truth that Sticks. Martin’s next book, probably entitled A Very British Revolution, will be published in October.